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Last month, we grammar bloggers were all abuzz about the Queen’s English Society and their quixotic quest for the instatement of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell.

There is little I could add to this quartet of brilliant battery, so instead of a general discussion of the Society’s shortcomings, I want to look at one of the things they’re complaining about as an example of bad English. The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?

  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”

Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels.  It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing.

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for?  Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs.  Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms.

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right.  Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!

Regarding point 3, this is a contentious point, and I don’t want you to think that I’m caricaturing the QES, so let me quote the entirety of their paragraph on it:

“This linguistic misfit [Ms.] came about because certain — note: certain, not all — women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status. Or perhaps they were annoyed that they could not identify a man as married or single by his title. We won’t begrudge these women their complexes but surely there is a better solution to their problem than an unpronounceable buzz!”

Women, amiright? Well, no. Actually, the original push for Ms. was to avoid mistaking a married woman for an unmarried woman or vice versa.  Ben Zimmer found the first known proposal for Ms. in a 1901 newspaper column (probably written by a man), which says:

“Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

This is certainly a conundrum that I face often. Ms. is not (only) popular because women rightfully feel no need to disclose their marital status*, but because it offers a way for both males and females to address a woman whose marital status is unknown.

Of course, the QES has a counter-proposal to make Ms. unnecessary. They propose introducing an unmarried male title to complete the symmetry with Miss and Mrs. and then to make the choice of titles rely on age. Despite the QES’s claim that this is “so simple and sensible”, I think any reasonable person will see that this is a far inferior solution, and so I won’t bother with further comment on that numbskullery.

Summary: Ms. isn’t some recent feminist invention, it’s pronounceable, and it’s a useful addition to English. There is no reasonable reason to oppose it.

*: Not to mention that marital status isn’t all or nothing. What is the right title for someone divorced, widowed, separated, etc.? Ms. is a convenient way to solve that problem of etiquette.

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One of the fun things about dialectal differences in English is how the poetry turns out. There are some rhymes that just wouldn’t work in your own dialect of English, but work fine in another. For instance, the way I learned that Canadian English has a different pronunciation of sorry from mine was by hearing a Nickelback song on the radio five hundred million times in 2002:

“It’s not like you to say sorry
I was waiting on a different story.”

My hometown of Pittsburgh has this too, as I found out reading a poem about the game in which the Terrible Towel (the original rally towel, which Pittsburghers wave at Steeler gamesOlympic award ceremonies, weddings, births, presidential inaugurations, etc.) debuted:

“‘It was easy,’ said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
‘I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!'”

That probably seems like terrible poetry to you, not only because it is, but also because the bolded end-rhymes of the second and fourth lines aren’t remotely similar. But to native Pittsburghers, they are. That’s because we have two vowel shifts that move us away from the “standard” American English pronunciations. Both of them are “monophthongizations”, which is a really fun word to say once you figure how to. Monophthongization is the process of converting a diphthong to a monophthong (I’ll explain those terms in a minute.)

The first vowel shift is the conversion of /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r. /aɪ/ is the phonetician’s way of writing what you learn in school as “long i”; it’s the vowel in sight, rhyme, or the pronoun I. It is a diphthong, which means that it’s really two vowels jammed together. If you say sight really slowly, you’ll notice that your lower jaw comes down as you start the vowel (the /a/ part), and then it starts back up, moving into sort of an “ee” sound (the /ɪ/ part) before you stop. If you don’t have anyone looking at you right now, try it yourself, and you’ll actually feel your mouth move from /a/ to /ɪ/. That’s a diphthong; it’s a sound where you start at one vowel and keep going until you finish at a new vowel. A monophthong, on the other hand, is a vowel sound that has the same sound throughout, like the /æ/ sound in American English hat. (Or the /a/ in British hat.) If you say hat slowly, you’ll notice that you start the vowel with your lower jaw down, and you only raise it back up when you start to make the t sound at the end, maintaining more or less the same vowel sound throughout.  If you’re having trouble seeing the difference between mono- & diphthongs, don’t worry.  The only crucial point is that the vowels in question are different in some way.

Returning to the Pittsburgh monophthongizations, we convert /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r, so smile has a vowel that’s more like an “ah” sound than the standard “long i”.*  The other monophthongization is the conversion of /aʊ/, the sound in Standard American English town, to /a/, another “ah”-type sound. This is why Pittsburghers sometimes write “dahntahn” for downtown.   The first of these monophthongizations isn’t particularly rare in American English, occurring (if I remember correctly) in Appalachia, and parts of the Eastern Midwest as well.  The second monophthongization is pretty much unique to Pittsburgh, at least among American English speakers.

And that’s how the rhyme works.  /aɪ/ in smile turns into one “ah”-like vowel, and /aʊ/ in towel turns into another “ah”, and tah-dah! We get poetry that seems like free verse to anyone from another city!  And at the low cost making the word pairs dowel-dial, foul-file, towel-tile, and vowel-vile more or less indistinguishable.

*: Since this shift only applies to vowels before an l or r, Pittsburghers pronounce the vowels in smile and smite differently.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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